There were those bright, cartoonish sets designed by the slyly elegant author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, with their intimations of wild things a-wilding and shenanigans in the night kitchen. There were the ornate and occasionally birdlike costumes from a slightly cracked Age of Reason, also designed by Sendak. There was even an occasional rumble of thunder from offstage, like a fuzz pedal on full blast, just to stir things up.
But what struck me most at Portland Opera’s opening-night performance of The Magic Flute on Friday was the large number of children and young people in the Keller Auditorium audience. Mothers came with their young daughters. Fathers showed up with their young sons. I happened to be sitting near a cluster of high school or college students, out on their own, and they were hooting and hollering like they were at an arena rock show. For an opera!
The involvement of the late Sendak, a true god of childhood, no doubt had a lot to do with that. (Read Angela Allen’s fascinating account for ArtsWatch of how Sendak’s sets and costumes, created in 1980 and destroyed a quarter-century later in a hurricane, were re-created for this production.) So, I’m guessing, did the fact that Mozart’s opera was sung in English (in a translation by Andrew Porter); and that it is in that subcategory of opera known as a singspiel, which means simply that the narrative is spoken rather than delivered in sung recitative, so that structurally the show is as close to a Broadway musical as to a grand opera. Those things – plus, of course, Mozart’s almost uncannily gorgeous harmonies, which came through clear and ravishing in Portland Opera’s production – conspire to make this a most accessible evening of musical-theater entertainment.
Opening might of The Magic Flute was also opening night of Portland Opera’s grand new gamble, its switch from a fall-to-spring season to a spring-and-summer format. The move will save some costs by concentrating the season, but will also pit the opera against some more established summer players – Chamber Music Northwest, the Astoria Music Festival, others – and the Oregon summer itself: can the company lure audiences indoors during the best weather of the year? And is simply switching the timing of the season enough to stamp the shift in people’s minds as something special? The rest of this inaugural-season lineup is solid but hardly earthshattering, with nothing that shouts “big event,” no programming risk to match the scheduling risk: Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (the latest in the company’s eager embrace of Broadway musicals), Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers.
The new format puts a lot of weight on this Magic Flute, and in terms of drawing in the crowds, it looks as if it’s pulling it off. Artistically, it’s a little more like the season lineup itself: solid, enjoyable, familiar, middle of the road. The Sendak sets and costumes are the big draw, and his fans will recognize the style immediately. Some of the action takes place in a neatly illustrated cavescape, some in a vaguely Egyptian fantasyscape. The fearsome dragon so adeptly dispatched at the opera’s beginning looks for all the world like one of Max’s cuddly monsters in Where the Wild Things Are: it’s almost like shooting a teddy bear.
But in the end, the heart of The Magic Flute is its music, which is smooth and civilized and quietly thrilling in a way that engages both head and heart. One of opera’s most accessible scores for people who aren’t opera buffs, it has plentiful subtlety and sheer beauty to satisfy insiders, too: In this case, familiarity breeds not contempt, but a continuing unfolding of secrets and fresh insights. This time around, it was those lush harmonies that caught my attention: the opera has its arias, a couple of them famous, but they rise from a bright choral foundation embedded in several of the supporting roles. The three comic lady attendants to the Queen of the Night, for instance (Abigail Dock, Angela Niederloh, the delightful Felicia Moore) interplay adeptly both musically and as comic foils; the three Spirits similarly engage one another, and the audience, harmonically.
What most of us remember dramatically about The Magic Flute isn’t so much its story, which is odd and masonic and sometimes close to incoherent, as its vivid characters. The comic bird-couple, Papageno and Papagena. The noble if slightly dim prince, Tamino. The lovely endangered princess, Pamina. The dark and frightening Queen of the Night, Pamina’s scheming mother. The Svengali-like Sarastro, whose lower range can send profundo chills and thrills across an auditorium.
The major roles are nicely cast, if not electrifying. Aline Kutan’s Queen of the Night and Tom McNichols’ Sarastro, the twin towers of power in Emmanuel Schikeneder and Carl Ludwig Giesecke’s libretto, lose a bit of that power in the recesses of the large Keller Auditorium (you could wish for a little more heft from those bass lines), but provide solid anchors. Christopher Mattaliano’s stage direction emphasizes Sarastro’s rationality over his wizardry: McNichols plays him as the patient, even-keeled 18th century voice of reason, which is quite a trick considering that the mumbo-jumbo Sarastro and his disciples adopt in their quest for enlightenment is mostly, well, mumbo-jumbo.
John Moore and Katrina Galka bird-walk nicely into commedia dell’arte territory in their low-comedy romantic narrative, and Papagena’s shedding of her old-lady puffy skin to emerge as a sleek bird of youth is one of Sendak’s wittiest costuming tricks. Marcus Shelton plays a stock hyperactive villain as the servant Monostatos, a role that is already problematic in the 21st century for its flavor of stereotyped orientalism: there’s a lot of shtick in this production, and some of it can feel a little jarring. Tenor Shawn Mathey sings the questing Tamino well, adeptly capturing the prince’s curiously passive role in his own heroic tale. And Maureen McKay, who sang Gretel a few seasons back in Portland Opera’s Hansel and Gretel, is a bright and self-determined Pamina, a thoroughly modern millie of a heroine, appealing for her forthrightness and can-do attitude.
At about three hours and 15 minutes, this is a lengthy Magic Flute, and at times it feels every bit that long, a little too carefully paced for its own good. Porter may have provided too much dialogue between the music: we’re really not here for the story, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, anyway. It’s all about the music (and, in this case, the sets and costumes), and musically, this cast is good enough to carry the day, if not make it indelible. As usual, conductor George Manahan and the opera orchestra are in good form.
Portland Opera’s The Magic Flute continues in Keller Auditorium with performances at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 8; and at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, May 12 and 14. Ticket and production information here.